The 10 best novels about World War II (with 30+ runners-up)

All the Light We Cannot See is one of the 10 best novels about World War II.The 40+ novels cited here probably aren’t the very best novels written about World War II. They’re just the best ones I’ve read and reviewed here since January 2010. I’ve given every one of them a rating of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5), eliminating a substantial number I gave lower ratings. For the most part, I’ve left out novels set in the pre- and post-war periods, including only a couple that seem important in understanding how the war came about and how it affected the people who survived it.

You’ll notice several titles each by three authors who have written series of thrillers that are set at least in part during World War II: Alan Furst and Alex Gerlis, who write about espionage, and the late Philip Kerr, whose protagonist was an anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany. The action in many of the novels by Furst and Kerr takes place either before or after the war and do not appear on this list.

Below you’ll find two lists, with the 10 best novels about World War II listed first. A second list that includes all four-score novels follows; that list is broken up into four sub-lists. Within the top list and each sub-list the titles are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each includes a link to my review.

The 10 best novels about World War II

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa—A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust

The “German girl” is Hannah Rosenthal, the blonde, blue-eyed, 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Berlin. As Hannah reflects about suffering abuse from her non-Jewish neighbors, “We were more German than they were.” So it is unsurprising that, after Hannah is accidentally photographed on the street early in 1939, she finds her picture on the cover of a Nazi propaganda magazine.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—This superb Pulitzer Prize-winner deserves the award it won

Two teenagers are caught up in the frenzy and the mortal dangers of World War II: a German boy who is extraordinarily clever with all things electronic, and a blind French girl who reads Jules Verne. Author Anthony Doerr explores the trajectory of their lives in parallel, moving them inexorably toward a fateful intersection in the book’s surprising climax.

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett—The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel

Two of the most fascinating inventions of World War II figure prominently in Eye of the Needle. One is the XX Committee, or Twenty Committee, otherwise sometimes know as the Double-Cross Committee, which was entirely real. The other was not real at all: the fictional First United States Army Group under General George S. Patton, or FUSAG. Together, these two elements constituted what may well have been the most elaborate deception ever deployed in war.

Spies of the Balkans (Night Soldiers #11) by Alan Furst—Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans”

Spies of the Balkans delves into the world of Costa Zannis, a senior police official in Salonika in 1940-41 as Hitler’s war machine lurches south toward Greece. Zannis, heir apparent to the police commissioner, becomes caught up in the characteristically Byzantine political affairs of the Balkans while juggling overlapping love affairs with two extraordinary women. An anti-German military coup in Yugoslavia, an “underground railway” for Jews escaping Nazi Germany, and the British Secret Service all figure prominently in the story. It’s a gripping tale.

The Best of Our Spies (Spies #1) by Alex Gerlis—An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact

An historical event so rich in detail and possibilities as the Allies’ successful deception that made the Normandy Landing possible has given rise to many spy novels as well as passel of nonfiction books. The most satisfying of the novels I’ve read is The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis. Working on the foundation of historical fact, including some real-life characters as well as the locations where the action really took place, Gerlis has woven a deeply engrossing and suspenseful tale that does as good a job as any nonfiction book in conveying what Operation Fortitude was really like.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance

When I searched “French Resistance,” Amazon.com turned up 11,485 titles—and that may understate the number of books that have been written about a subject that is one of the most heavily researched topics in 20th Century history. Anyone who has read more than a smattering of what has been published about World War II is sure to have encountered something about the French Resistance. It takes courage for a contemporary writer to undertake yet another book on such well-traveled terrain—and surpassing skill to succeed in crafting a fresh and moving treatment of the topic. Kristin Hannah has successfully done just that in her novel, The Nightingale.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins—A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading

Any list of the best espionage novels of all times must include Jack Higgins’ World War II caper story, The Eagle Has Landed. Published in 1975, this classic of the genre has sold more than 50 million copies. The novel introduces Liam Devlin, a fast-talking agent for the Irish Republican Army, who is featured in three of Higgins’ subsequent thrillers. Though nominally about espionage, as the story revolves around an imaginary plot by the Nazi military intelligence agency, the Abwehr, in 1943, the novel is more properly a thriller, action-filled virtually from the beginning to the end.

A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9) by Philip Kerr—Mass murder in the Katyn Forest

In the spring of 1940, Josef Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, systematically murdered some 22,000 Poles. Among the victims were half the members of the Polish officer corps, police officers, government representatives, royalty, and leading members of Poland’s civilian population. More than 4,000 of them were buried in the Katyn Forest, a wooded area near the city of Smolensk, located near the Belarus border west of Moscow. Philip Kerr’s novel is based on the international investigation first carried out there in 1943.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris—Holocaust memories: A deeply moving love story set at Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, set largely in the death camp itself, offers a fictional picture of life there from 1942 until the end of World War II. The book is a novel. Yet it is squarely based on the real-life experiences of “Lale” Eisenberg, a young Slovak Jew who was transported to Auschwitz in April 1942. Lale survived the camp when millions didn’t, largely because he was pressed into service to tattoo the notorious numbers on the arms of incoming prisoners.

The Book of Aron by Jim Shephard—A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto

This is not one of those predictable tales of the heroic but doomed Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The action takes place in the months leading up to the uprising. The story revolves around the life of a boy named Aron, the son of a poor Jewish couple from a Polish shtetl near the Lithuanian border. Aron is eight years old when the tale begins in 1936, but the book focuses on the tragic months in 1942 when he is thirteen. As the Nazis progressively shrink the borders of the Ghetto and starve its residents, Aron and his gang of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds turn to petty crime in an effort to survive.

All 40+ best novels about World War II

Spy stories

The Traitor by V. S. Alexander—Dramatizing anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during World War II

Transcription by Kate Atkinson—Kate Atkinson’s latest is a beautifully written spy story

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin—Resistance, and collaboration, among the rich and famous of Paris

A Single Spy by William Christie—A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

1945 by Robert Conroy—What if Japan hadn’t surrendered?

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett—The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel

Red Gold (Night Soldiers #5) by Alan Furst—A brilliant novel of the French Resistance

Blood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) by Alan Furst—Spies at work in WWII Istanbul and Rumania

Spies of the Balkans (Night Soldiers #11) by Alan Furst—Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans”

A Hero of France (Night Soldiers #14) by Alan Furst—Vive la Resistance!

Under Occupation (Night Soldiers #15) by Alan Furst—Alan Furst on the French Resistance

The Best of Our Spies (Spies #1) by Alex Gerlis—An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact

The Swiss Spy (Spies #2) by Alex Gerlis—World War II spies in Switzerland

Vienna Spies (Spies #3) by Alex Gerlis—A stirring tale of spies in wartime Vienna

The Berlin Spies (Spies #4) by Alex Gerlis—The best spy novelist you’ve never read

Prince of Spies (Richard Prince #1) by Alex Gerlis—British spies and the Nazi V-2 rocket

Munich by Robert Harris—Robert Harris explains why Neville Chamberlain went to Munich

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins—A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading

Luciano’s Luck by Jack Higgins—Fact and fiction about the Mafia and the WWII Allied invasion of Sicily

Tightrope by Simon Mawer—A well-written novel about World War II British espionage

The war at home

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave—The human cost of World War II

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—This superb Pulitzer Prize-winner deserves the award it won

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan—This bestselling historical novel is a winner

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance

The Holocaust

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa—A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust

The List by Martin Fletcher—A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London

The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon—Hunting Nazis in Argentina

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer—A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris—Holocaust memories: A deeply moving love story set at Auschwitz

The Book of Aron by Jim Shephard—A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto

Mystery and suspense

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black—Booker Award winner Benjamin Black returns to historical fiction

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen—A touching tale of love and betrayal in World War II Italy

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney—Clever plot twists in a time travel tale

1945 by Robert Conroy—What if Japan hadn’t surrendered?

Red Inferno: 1945 by Robert Conroy—What if the Cold War had turned hot in 1945?

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean—A novel about memory evokes the siege of Leningrad

SS-GB by Len Deighton—In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England

The Reckoning by John Grisham—John Grisham digs deeply into history with this excellent WWII novel

The Good German by Joseph Kanon—The cost of total war was clear in Berlin after World War II

Field Gray (Bernie Gunther #7) by Philip Kerr—Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks

Prague Fatale (Bernie Gunther #8) by Philip Kerr—A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany

A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9) by Philip Kerr—Mass murder in the Katyn Forest

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther #10) by Philip Kerr—Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany

World Gone By (Coughlin #3) by Dennis Lehane—Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down

December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith—A standalone novel from the author of the Arkady Renko stories

The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15) by Jacqueline Winspear—Maisie Dobbs pursues a killer in Britain during the Blitz

For further reading

You might also be interested in my post, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up) and 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).

Check out The 10 most consequential events of World War II and 15 good books about the Holocaust, including both fiction and nonfiction.

And you can always find all the latest books I’ve read and reviewed, as well as my most popular posts, on the Home Page.

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